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Know the Enemy - DC United

MLS: LA Galaxy at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Vancouver Whitecaps return home on Saturday evening to take on DC United at BC Place. While a lot of stars skip out on the long journey to Vancouver, apparently Rooney isn’t one of them. The Caps will have to contend with a strong DC United side and Wayne Rooney. We help you get to Know the Enemy in this pre-match piece.

Head-to-Head

Being intra-conference opponents, DC United and Vancouver Whitecaps only play once a year; alternating the home team. In the last five years, the Caps have not had the best of luck against the team from America’s capital. They have lost their previous four and were only able to muster a 0-0 draw in 2014. During that time, they have been outscored 10 to 2, and have been shutout three times. Yikes! Of course, in the end the history doesn’t matter, but with the way the club has been playing this summer don’t be surprised to see this trend continue.

Recent Form

As I mentioned, Vancouver have not been good lately…and frankly haven’t been good all season. They had a short positive bump recently drawing 0-0 in Minnesota before beating Cincinnati 2-1, however, they were back in the loss column last match, losing 3-1 at Portland. Despite the loss, there were positives. The club looked much more entertaining. Hopefully that can continue on Saturday night.

DC United currently sit fourth in the Eastern Conference, but that is thanks in large part to the start of their season. In their first 13 matches they had seven wins, three draws, and three losses. However, since then, they have only three wins, six draws, and four losses. They did win their last match 2-1 though, hosting LA Galaxy.

DC United have been alright on the road, with a 4-4-4 record, while Vancouver has only been able to muster three victories at home, to go along with five defeats and four draws. Like I said, it hasn’t really been a good season for the Caps.

With both teams in a bit of a funk lately, it is anyone’s guess how this one turns out. Going cross-continent DC United might be content with another draw, while the Caps could continue their bright play of late, and score a victory, or could fall back down into the pit and lose big.

Which way do you see the Caps going in this one?

Strategy

Vancouver has tried a variety of lineup formations this season but have recently been sporting the ‘Christmas Tree’ 4-3-2-1 formation. It is likely we see that again, but don’t be surprised if we don’t. Adnan is questionable for this one, so MDS might choose to go with three -Henry, Godoy, and Cornelius- at the back. If this happens, we could see Erice slotted back into the lineup to provide some additional defensive support. If that occurs, we could see a 3-5-1-1, with Reyna and Bair up top. Chirinos is yet to arrive, so the Caps are still very weak on the wings…another reason we might see a narrow lineup.

Against LA Galaxy, DC United lined up in a 4-2-3-1, however, prior to that they were in a 3-4-3. This move to 4-2-3-1 might have been because of LA, injuries, or the arrival of Felipe (wow, wouldn’t that be something). It is possible that they go with either formation, but with Felipe arriving, and seeming to be in the Starting XI plans, we are likely to see the 4-2-3-1.

Three Questions

In preparation for the match we spoke with Black and Red United’s (https://www.blackandredunited.com/) Jason Anderson (@chestrockwell14). In our discussion were the topics of Wayne Rooney, surprising turnaround, and big spending.

1. It was announced that Wayne Rooney would be departing in the summer. What impact has he had on the team during his tenure? What can we expect from him on Saturday night?

Rooney has been a major factor in the organization’s turnaround as a whole. Obviously he’s been great on the field, but off the field he’s been just as big a deal. The rest of the locker room loves him, and he’s quietly a very savvy person when it comes to knowing what (and when) to say something. He’s upped the standard across the board, basically, and that was something United desperately needed. Rooney wasn’t the only acquisition pointing to a turnaround: Paul Arriola and Luciano Acosta both required seven-figure transfer fees, and United has options to buy guys like Leonardo Jara and Lucas Rodriguez that wouldn’t have happened in the past. But, it’s one thing to get into the $1-2 million range on a player whose value you expect to appreciate, and another to be able to a) win the competition for a player like Rooney, and b) pay his salary. Rooney’s time here has really raised the bar in just about every way it could have, and there is already real pressure from fans to maintain that standard once he leaves in the winter.

For this game, it sounds for all the world like he’s going to start. He missed last week’s game with what the team called an upper respiratory ailment, which may have just been a cold he caught jetting to and from England to finish up his deal with Derby County. During his entire time here, though, minor issues haven’t had an impact on Rooney’s performance. He’s been training all week, so he should be ready to go. There is an interesting question as to whether he’ll play up front in a 4231, or if Ben Olsen will deploy him as an attacking midfielder underneath Quincy Amarikwa. Last week, Olsen dropped Acosta and brought Amarikwa in up front, and it helped them get a badly-needed win. There’s also the possibility of Ola Kamara getting his first start as well, as the Norwegian just got his work visa on Monday.

Rooney’s spot in the lineup isn’t in question (he’s hands-down the team MVP this year), but the specifics of his role are up in the air.

2. In 2017, DC United finished last in the East. Last year, it was fourth. This year, they are sitting third. Has the transformation been down to simply the addition of Rooney or what other changes have led to the improved play?

Rooney has definitely been a major factor, but he’s hardly the only factor. Back in 2017’s summer window, United added Arriola and Russell Canouse. They picked up Frederic Brillant, Joseph Mora, and Junior Moreno in the offseason that followed. Rooney was an earth-shattering signing last summer, but United also re-acquired Bill Hamid in the same window. This season, Jara (who was a starter at Boca Juniors last year) and Rodriguez were acquired on loan back in the winter.

In other words, if you assumed a clean bill of health for every player on the roster, 9 of the 11 presumptive starters are additions since this time 2 years ago. The secret isn’t just Rooney, but rather a top-to-bottom better roster.

Interestingly, though, it doesn’t necessarily feel like 2019 has been better than 2018. Last year, due to Audi Field’s construction, United ended up with 15 home games from July 14 onward. Winning over and over again while not having to travel much at all built a lot of momentum, and that translated into the highest-quality soccer this team has produced since the mid-00s. They finished 4th, but they felt like a better team than that.

In 2019, the dynamic has kinda-sorta reversed. United had a spectacular March, then kept getting good results despite a dip in April and May. They won 7 times in their first 12 games of the season, and felt like the most likely winner of the Eastern Conference. However, since then they’ve been deeply mediocre, going 3W-7D-4L in their last 14 games. Several of those draws were fortunate, and none of the wins has been particularly impressive. They’ve been in a rut because teams have figured out how to contain Acosta, and because a few other players haven’t been able to replicate their 2018 form. United hasn’t had many outright terrible games, but until last week there’s been a little bit of a listlessness about them.

3. Recently, DC United has been linked with Daniel Sturbridge and Mesut Ozil. It appears neither is likely at the moment, but what moves do you expect the club to make to replace Rooney? They seem to have an affinity for the English Premier League. Is this just coincidence or is there a reason why that is the preferred place to find players for the organization?

It’s still a bit stunning, even after Rooney, to be linked to names like the ones that are popping up lately. Right now, the addition of Kamara is certainly a good start. He won’t necessarily sell as many jerseys, but his goalscoring record in MLS (48 in 90 games) is outstanding, and people will always buy tickets to see a winning, high-scoring team.

What they do beyond that is really an unknown, because they have a lot of issues to settle this winter. Hamid, Jara, and Rodriguez are all on loans that expire at the end of the season, and making those deals permanent (or finding an equivalent player) won’t be cheap. Acosta looks increasingly likely to depart the moment his contract is up, so they’ll definitely need a midfield playmaker, so it’s fair to expect another seven-figure transfer fee/salary (or both?) at the very least.

We’re still very new to this whole “our team spends money on players” thing, so there’s not an immense track record to point to. However, you’re right about the Premier League links consistently coming up. The club’s owners are also part-owners of Swansea City, and United seems to plan to use Rooney as part of their recruitment going forward (he’s already agreed to a nebulous “club ambassador” role that starts after this season ends). If I had to guess, I’d expect United to stick to the following formula in the next few years: one Premier League veteran DP, one young South American DP, and a third that is either a USMNT player or another from CONMEBOL.

Personally, I don’t think the Premier League link stops with the ownership situation, or with Rooney lifting the club’s name recognition over there. The fact is that the whole D.C. region is usually at or very near the top of the Premier League’s TV ratings in the U.S., and this is a market where most of the area’s soccer fans prefer their club abroad over their hometown team. United has a long way to go in terms of breaking into that set of fans as a whole (whether we’re talking about fans of English soccer, other European leagues, Liga MX, or elsewhere), and the two things they’ve done since the turn of the century that really moved the needle have been to sign Rooney and to establish themselves over multiple seasons as a championship contender. Of those two options, the former is more predictable and straightforward: put up the money, and you can probably bring the Big Name in.